Carolyn Porco

On this date in 1953, planetary scientist Carolyn C. Porco was born in Bronx, N.Y., where she was raised with four brothers, which she partly attributes to her career success in a field dominated by men. “I’m used to fighting and arguing with males,” she later quipped. Her father, an Italian immigrant, drove a bread truck, and her mother kept house while Carolyn attended Cardinal Spellman High School. (New York Times, Sept. 21, 2009)

Porco was a serious child, she recalled, “kind of like a 13-year-old going on 80.” She sought to find the meaning of her life. “The desire to know, to come to grips with my existence, brought me to seek the answer in the study of the cosmos. For a period of about four or five months, I tried to be a devout Catholic because that was the religion I was born into.” She went to Mass during the week and not just on Sunday “to get in God’s good graces. But it just felt like putting on a jacket that was too small.” (Violet magazine interview with Sasha Sagan, Nov. 23, 2020)

She earned an earth science B.S. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1974 and a Ph.D. in geological and planetary sciences in 1983 from Caltech, where her dissertation was on discoveries in the rings of Saturn by the Voyager spacecraft. She joined the faculty of the Department of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona, where she would teach until 2001, and the Voyager Imaging Team.

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 launched in 1977 on what became an interstellar journey among the four giant planets — Uranus, Saturn, Neptune and Jupiter — and 48 of their moons. Still operational as of this writing in 2022, they were respectively over 14 and 12 billion miles from Earth.

Porco co-originated the idea in 1990 to take a Voyager 1 “portrait of the planets,” including the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth, at the request of Voyager team member Carl Sagan, who coined the term. She was hired as a consultant for the movie “Contact” (1997), based on Sagan’s novel about a feisty astronomer played by Jodie Foster, and took strong exception to a plot wrinkle that the character should sleep with her adviser. (New York Times, Sept. 21, 2009)

She led the imaging team for the Cassini–Huygens mission launched in 1997 by NASA and the European and Italian space agencies and was the first to describe the behavior of the ringlets within Saturn’s rings. She led “The Day the Earth Smiled” effort that culminated with an image of Earth from 898 million miles away on July 19, 2013, and was a member of the imaging team for the New Horizons probe, which flew by Pluto in 2015.

Porco was a former student at Caltech of astrogeologist Eugene Shoemaker, who died in a car accident at age 69. He was also a Voyager Imaging Team member. As a tribute, she conceived a plan to “bury” a small amount of his cremains with a spacecraft that would impact the moon in 1999. She subsequently helped defend the plan from complaints by Navajo Nation president Albert Hale about defiling the “sacred” lunar landscape.

“The last time I looked there is a separation of church and state in this country,” Porco said. “Exploration of the moon is a secular activity and religious notions should not be imposed on it. Other religions have been able to accommodate scientific progress, and I hope that somehow the Navajos will be able to modify their beliefs, too.” About 1 ounce of ashes, encased in a polycarbonate tube, ended up buried in a crater where the Lunar Prospector probe’s mission was intentionally ended. (New York Times, Aug. 17, 1999) 

(The above story link also helps explain Porco’s decision to remain single and focus solely on her work. She was 46 at the time. “Porco, who lives alone in the Tucson foothills, said she had little time for outside activities. ‘There are absolutely no high-maintenance items in my house of any kind — plants, pets or husbands.’ “)

She remains professionally active as a researcher, media contributor and public speaker, in addition to editing the Cassini Imaging Team’s website and as president of Diamond Sky Productions: “Our cause: Present science and its findings to the public.” Porco once said if you asked her if she believed in God, she would have two answers:

“In my capacity as a professional scientist, I would have to — I would be required to — be agnostic on the subject since I couldn’t say with scientific certainty that there is a God and I couldn’t with scientific certainty say that there isn’t.” But as a nonscientist, she added, “… then I’m going to have to say that my very strong faith, my very, very strong belief is that there is no God.” (“Enlightenment Living” by Ryan Somma, 2012)

In 2006, while working as a researcher at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., she spoke at a forum at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. She suggested, perhaps half in jest, establishing an alternative church headed by Neil deGrasse Tyson. “Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty,” Porco said. “It is already so much more glorious and awesome — and even comforting — than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know.” (New York Times, Nov. 21, 2006)

Porco spoke at the Reason Rally in Washington in 2016. In response to a tweet saying “The pope is ashamed. Has he burned anyone at the stake yet?” (Aug. 19, 2018), she wrote: “The righteousness of the religious. I am ashamed to be of the same species.” She later deleted her tweet.

Freedom From Religion Foundation